The Importance of Language Learning and Maintenance amid Brexit and COVID-19: Evidence from Successful EAL Practice

Post by Mattia Zingaretti, PhD Researcher in Linguistics & English Language, University of Edinburgh

The following thoughts and reflections are based on and inspired by the presentations given by Prof Antonella Sorace, Dr Naomi Flynn and Dr Yvonne Foley at the recent webinar ‘The new normal for languages at home, school and in the community’, co-organised by Bilingualism Matters (BM) and Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT).

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Research on Bilingual Listening: Is Bulgarian-accented English easier to understand for Bulgarian-English bilinguals?

By Maria Dokovova

1. Why did I start this?

It is widely perceived that second language listeners are better at understanding second-language accents rather than first-language accents. For example, as a Bulgarian whose second language is English, I am expected to be better at understanding Bulgarian-accented or foreign-accented English, rather than native English accents. Other people have put a name to this belief, calling it the Interspeech Intelligibility Benefit Hypothesis.

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OASIS database

OASIS is a publicly available database of accessible summaries of research articles in the fields of language learning, language teaching, and multilingualism. OASIS summaries are a single page only and are written in non-technical language. There are currently around 300 summaries online, searchable by topic.

Bilingualism Matters plans to work with OASIS to encourage researchers to contribute to this valuable resource bringing language research results to everyone.

Find out more on their website at: and sign up for regular alerts from the OASIS team.

How daily exposure affects understanding in a second language

Research Summary by Carine Abraham

In our everyday lives, we react and are affected by the events which occur around us. While developing and growing, we not only learn how to act in various situations, such as not falling off the couch or avoiding getting stung by bees, but we also learn what kind of words or phrases, even what language, to use at different times. Researchers have long been looking into what affects our ability to learn a second language. There are now signs that the amount someone uses a second language, and the amount of exposure they have to that language, may actually benefit using both their first and their second language.

Dominance in one particular language for a bilingual is usually thought of in terms of how much better they speak one of their languages. Previously, research found that the difference in a speaker’s strength in the languages they speak can either increase or decrease the amount of time it takes to switch between those languages. For bilinguals switching between languages (whether it’s English to Spanish or Japanese to French), having to ignore or remember information in the correct language for a conversation is constantly occurring.

For a long time, it had been thought that the speed to correctly choose the right word in the right language was linked to the difference in the strength of each language. However, a study from the University of Edinburgh, has shown that there are most likely other factors affecting the speed between switching languages.

In this new study, researchers looked at many aspects of the bilingual experience to see if how “good” a speaker was in a language is the only factor that affects speakers’ switching powers, or if other factors, such as the age they began learning their languages and the amount they use and hear the languages each day, play a hand in this process.

To help answer this question, the researchers created a task where bilingual speakers named different objects, such as a pair of glasses or a river, in either their first or second language, occasionally switching back and forth between the two languages. After testing 83 speakers, who were either high proficiency Italian-English or Italian-Sardinian bilinguals, the researchers found that the strength of the speakers’ languages was not the only factor that affected the speed of the participants to switch between their languages, but both daily use and the age of learning did as well.

While it has been known that the age someone begins to learn a language benefits certain parts of language learning, the finding in this study showing that increased daily use of a second language helps in switching between languages is an exciting discovery. So, if you’re now learning a new language, or trying to brush up on one you already speak, try to use it as much as you can.

Language experience modulates bilingual language control: The effect of proficiency, age of acquisition, and exposure on language switching” by Michela Bonfieni, Holly P. Branigan, Martin J.Pickering & Antonella Sorace

AThEME publication on Scottish Gaelic and English bilinguals

The AThEME project (Advancing the European Multilingual Experience) is now in its final year. A recent publication from the team in Edinburgh is based on research investigating how speaking both Scottish Gaelic and English influences the way bilingual speakers process and use certain aspects of grammar (i.e. sentence structures) in their languages.

Since speaking different languages influences language processing in different ways, understanding minority languages helps us preserve a greater range of ways of thinking about the world, and gives us access to a unique Gaelic-English perspective. This publication is important in drawing focus to Scottish Gaelic and helping us to better understand how Gaelic-English bilinguals store and process their two languages.

Shared representation of passives across Scottish Gaelic and English: evidence from structural priming‘ (Timea Kutasi, Ellise Suffill, Catriona L. Gibb, Antonella Sorace, Martin J. Pickering, Holly P. Branigan) in Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science, May 2018


Is there a ‘cut-off age’ for learning languages?


By Antonella Sorace & Thomas Bak

The idea that there is a critical period for language learning has been around for a long time, at least since Eric Lenneberg’s 1967 book “Biological Foundations of Language”, which proposed that the acquisition of a first language can be successful only if children are exposed to it in early infancy. The concept was then naturally extended to second language (L2) acquisition, given the much greater variation in outcomes among adult language learners. However, conclusive evidence for the biological nature of child-adult differences and for a well-defined cut-off point has not been found.

At the University of Edinburgh, we study speakers at the very upper end of the L2 proficiency range, who can pass for native speakers at least at some levels: the very existence of these speakers shows that it is possible for adults to be very successful at learning a second language later in life. But why do we find so much more variation? There are many different factors contributing to this, including a shorter time scale and the fact that full immersion in the L2 environment can’t be taken for granted for adults in the same way as it can for children. There is evidence that multilingualism helps: the more languages are known, the easier it becomes to learn more. And recent research also shows that the brain of much older adults responds very well to the challenge of learning a new language, even if high proficiency levels are not reached.

Also, the “critical period” might be different for different aspects of language. It is difficult for an adult to learn new sounds to a level of being perceived as a “native speaker”, in fact, this is the case even within the same language in terms of dialects and local accents. In contrast, the rules of grammar can be learned later and we continue to learn new vocabulary throughout our lives, as new words emerge in all languages. Importantly, the fact that with age it might get more difficult to learn some aspects of language (as is the case with many other activities, such as engaging in sports or playing musical instruments) should not discourage us from doing it. On the contrary, learning languages might be one of the best ways of keeping our mind agile in later life!

Useful links

Here’s when it gets more difficult to learn a new language, according to science

Students should learn second language to prevent dementia in later life

Video: Language Learning in the USA

Bilingualism Matters was delighted to be involved in the National Languages Networking meeting in Glasgow this week. The meeting was an opportunity for educators from across Scotland to explore how we can develop language teaching in our schools, with a focus on the “1 + 2” approach to language learning here in Scotland (more details on 1 + 2 are available on the SCILT website).

As part of the programme presented by Education Scotland, which included a talk by Bilingualism Matters Director Antonella Sorace on ‘Second language learning: benefits and challenges’, the co-director of our new Bilingualism Matters branch in California, Prof. Judith Kroll, recorded a special presentation on the current context for language learning in the USA. In her presentation, she introduced recent research findings on the benefits of language learning for brain development. The full presentation can be viewed on YouTube.

Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Blog post by Eva-maria Schnelten

In September, the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona hosted the Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism, a renowned school for postgraduate students and researchers to gather, present and discuss the newest developments in their respective fields.

A few members of Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh were able to attend this year, promoting their research either in an oral presentation or a poster session.

The overarching theme was, as the name suggests, research concerning bilingualism and multilingualism: ranging from neuro-cognitive factors and the implications for ageing and health to the sociolinguistic development in bilingual children. The talks and posters provided an interesting and broad overview of the work that has been conducted in the field. [Read more…]

Myths and Misconceptions in Multilingualism


Post by Dr Thomas Bak, Co-director of Bilingualism Matters

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and lifting of travel restrictions, Vienna become a favourite destination for Eastern Europeans keen to buy hitherto unavailable Western goods. My West German friend Wilhelm recalled a conversation with an East German colleague while looking at the frantic markets. “Poor Viennese”, said the East German, “those Eastern Europeans will buy everything and leave them with nothing”. “Lucky Viennese”, answered Wilhelm, “they are doing the business of their lifetime”. Obviously, their comments reflected different economic reality under which they grew up, but they illustrate rather well the general contrast between “limited resource” and “added value” models. [Read more…]

How do people agree on when to switch between languages?

Research Digest by Michela Bonfieni

A recent study reveals how bilinguals who speak the same two languages implicitly agree with each other on when to switch between their languages. The study also shows that switching between languages in the middle of a conversation is as natural and systematic as any other aspect of language.

Bilingual speakers often use bits of their two languages in their sentences. For example, speaking about taxes and savings, two Spanish-English speakers may go about like this:

Speaker 1: “qué dinero?” (‘what money?’)

Speaker 2: “el dinero ese que nos van a dar with the taxes.” (‘the money that they’re going to give us with the taxes.’)

This behaviour is very frequent among bilinguals who live in contexts where both their languages are used. Researchers on bilingualism refer to this as ‘code-switching’, and have dedicated a lot of attention to understand the way it works. [Read more…]